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The Color Thinking

Each change process is unique, given the change assignment, the history of the organization, the context of the organization, etc. Thinking about changing in terms of colors stems from the desire to influence changes in organizations. The colors are useful when choosing the most promising change approach for a certain problem in a certain organization and it makes it easier to communicate about changes.

Color thinking helps you to become aware of your own ideas about change and it provides tools for recognizing and discussing the views of others. In addition, it can help organizations to choose a conscious and appropriate approach to successfully realize change. Color thinking was developed by Léon de Caluwé and Hans Vermaak and is described in detail in the book; Learning to Change (2006).

Ideals for organizational change

Each of the five views / colors for planned organizational changes has its own ideal. An ideal that one strives for in the long term.

- It's ideal for power-oriented / yellow-pressure thinking that people (always) see overarching interests and want to pursue collective effects. According to this ideal, people want and can agree
- It's ideal for system-oriented / blueprint thinking: everything is feasible and manageable and can be achieved according to rational planning
- It's ideal for people-oriented / red-print thinking: looking for the right 'fit' between people and instruments, between organizational goals and individual goals, and the right way to stimulate people
- The ideal of learning-oriented / green print thinking is the learning organization, in which everything can be learned and in which intentional learning is consciously applied
- In flow-oriented / whiteprinting thinking, the ideal lies in spontaneous evolution. Change and learn in "accidental". Moreover, there's a positive attitude towards conflict and crisis.

Pitfalls in organizational change

Each view / color in planned organizational changes has its own pitfalls. These are circumstances or situations in which the approach is no longer effective or even counterproductive.

- In the case of power-oriented / yellow pressure thinking, the pitfall lies with loose-loose effects (power struggle) and with 'air cycling': the goals and means / efforts aren't linked to each other
- In system-oriented / blueprint thinking, the pitfall is that irrational aspects aren't sufficiently taken into account. As a result, there's sometimes more resistance than a committer. The pitfall is also with impatience, hurry and not allowing the other person time. People often don't feel involved in the result
- The pitfall for people-oriented / red-print thinking is the lack of 'hard' outcomes as a result of soft, indirect physicians. Another pitfall here is a lack of space for individual motives and customization. This view also denies power in organizations, both top-down and bottom-up. It can degenerate into just 'being pleasantly busy'
- The pitfall of learning-oriented / green pressure thinking is that in some situations people either don't want (in conflict, power) or are unable to learn (lack of skills). There may also be a lack of 'hard' results and sometimes a lack of action (and an excess of reflection!)
- The pitfall of flow-oriented / whiteprinting thinking lies in ideologizing. This can be expressed in letting go of things ("saddling" employees with self-management). Also in insufficient insight into the 'real chaos'; the patterns. It can also degenerate into meaningless banter.

Assumptions behind change management visions

There appear to be five fundamentally different views on changing organizations. These views give color, content and meaning to very different approaches to organizational change.

Colored views

The five ways of thinking differ greatly in the assumptions made about why and how people change. These assumptions can be made clear for each view on the basis of a few short sentences or statements. Every view or way of thinking has been labeled with a color. This makes it easier to discuss and use these views.

Power-oriented or yellow-print thinking

In this view, the change expert assumes that people will only change if you:

- takes their (own) interests into account
- can seduce or coerce them into certain views.

Change is regarded as a power game aimed at 'feasible' solutions. This way fits very strongly in change processes:

- where people pursue complex goals
- where people want to achieve complex effects
- involving several persons or parties.

The yellow color serves as a symbol of power ('the sun', 'the fire') and of the nature of the formation of coalitions ('incubation processes' by the 'fireplace').

System-oriented or blueprint thinking

In this way of thinking, the change expert assumes that people or things will change if you:

- records a clearly specified result in advance
- specify requirements for the outcomes
- meticulously plans and executes all steps and adjusts them in the light of the result to be achieved.

Change is considered a rational process, aimed at 'the best' solution. The change often focuses on matter and form.

The color blue represents the pre-made design / drawing / blueprint. Blue therefore means predicting and guaranteeing the outcome.

People-oriented or red-print thinking

Change practitioners who use this color assume that people change if you:

- stimulates them properly
- makes it as attractive as possible for people to get involved.

In other words, people change if you reward them (by salary, promotion, bonus, good rating) or "punish" (by demotion, bad rating). Change is largely an exchange exercise here. Give a little, take a little. Much use is made of HRM (Human Resources Management) instruments and organizational elements in order to change the "soft" aspects of an organization. Soft aspects are: personnel, management style, talents, competencies.

The color red is symbolic of man, with the color of human blood. Man must be influenced, seduced and provoked.

Learning-oriented or green print thinking

Change experts who use this view see change and learn as closely related concepts. The underlying thinking here is that people change or start moving, by:

- motivate to learn
- consciously incapacitated.

By subsequently bringing them into learning situations, you want to increase their learning ability. In those learning situations they master other ways of doing things. The extent to which this happens, however, strongly depends on that learning ability.

The color green symbolizes people with their ideas (with their motivation and learning ability). The point is to get them to work, to give the "green light". This's also about "growing" like the green of nature.

Flow-oriented or whiteprinting

The underlying idea of ​​change experts with this view here is that everything (also) changes automatically and that change is a permanent process.

The dominant image here is that everything (autonomously, as a matter of course) is changing. "Panta rhei": everything flows. Change is equivalent to loosening energy. Steering is removing blockages, observing well and explaining what's going on. Steering is based on addressing inner security, instead of the outer certainties. Complexity is seen as enriching, not as disruptive. Influencing the dynamics is a favorite approach. People are looking for the seeds of innovation and creativity. Meaning plays an important role.

The color white includes all colors. The specific coloring comes from self-organization and evolution. White offers the most space for interpretation: everything is still open.

Application possibilities

Color thinking can be used to characterize people and situations. Also to 'color' the ingredients of the change approach. And people can characterize themselves with it.

The following possibilities arise when applying color thinking:

- People and situations can be typified with it. It can be said of a group or a client or a colleague: "I mainly hear blue there". This's how the underlying thinking frame can be described. Of course one has to watch out for stigmatization or stereotyping!
- The ingredients of the change approach can be 'colored' with it. For example, blue calls results: result, white calls it direction or destination, and green: what we must have learned. Blue will talk about phases, white about the 'next step', green about the trajectory. But it isn't only the words that differ: the frame of thought and the meaning also differ greatly. The colors can therefore be used to diagnose and design change strategies and interventions
- People can characterize themselves with it. What are the own thinking frameworks? Where is the preferred approach? Where are blind spots? Which approaches do you feel incompetent with?


In the context of color thinking, there are two views about when a change agent is professional:

- the first states that a change agent must be able to intervene in all colors. In other words, he or she must have an extensive behavioral repertoire
- the second states that everyone has a preferred color, in which they can intervene effectively, but that the effectiveness in other colors is low. In this approach, professional is: knowing what needs to be done, which intervention color is desired, but then also deciding whether or not to do it yourself. Professional here is to get to know your own limitations.

Everyone is able to handle the colors intellectually and cognitively. But acting credibly, authentically and effectively is something completely different. This's partly because the colors represent generic values. These values ​​are very basic and they're taught in education. This could include questions such as:

- What's fair?
- How equal are people?
- How can someone approach people? and how not?
- When does someone cross the line?

The answer is different in every color!

Description per color

There are many different approaches to changing organizations. These approaches can be arranged in five different 'schools' or 'colors'. Each of these schools assumes fundamentally different assumptions about change.

In which the views / colors differ

The five different orders of change approaches differ on quite a few themes, aspects, inputs, etc., such as:

- the basic assumptions about when and why people or things (by people) change
- the change process that's more or less rational or intuitive
- the controllability of the change, which can be greater and less
- the central idea of ​​the change agent that can consist of creating support, achieving a result, enticing people, facilitating learning, removing blockades and much more.

Every viewpoint / color requires an ideal

For example, the ideal that the change agent pursues in the long term from his or her point of view may consist of:

- looking after interests
- controlling the change
- the search for the right 'fit' between people and the organization
- forming learning organizations.

Yellow print thinking

Yellow print thinking is based on socio-political views on organizations. When changing organizations according to these views, interests, conflict and power play an important role.


Yellow-print thinking assumes that the formation of power is already a process of change in itself. Making policy or creating a project program is bringing together interests. It's accompanied by the formation of power and the resolution and negotiation of contradictions and conflicts. Once power is formed, changes can be enforced. But always maneuvering with the balance of power remains a constant task.

Setting goals, determining policy and formulating the program is done by creating support. It also happens by:

- pool interests
- create win-win situations
- play the political game
- to use power
- to negotiate.

The idea behind yellow-print thinking is that everyone has their own interests, goals, aspirations and choices. Every person wants to realize it. Yellow print thinking required by the changer:

- political skills
- the competence to deal with a complex field of interest
- independence.

Communicating, mediation, negotiating and working with third parties are favorite interventions of yellow pressure thinkers.

Points of attention

Yellow print thinking also has pitfalls. The ideal is for people to pursue overarching interests and collective effects. But despite the United Nations, there's still war and poverty in this world.

Yellow print thinking can lead to:

- lose-lose effects
- long-lasting power conflicts, where all energy is consumed by the conflict
- 'bicycle racing' in which the goals and means are insufficiently connected or coordinated, resulting in hollow rhetoric.

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